Still under State of Emergency, W.Va. jail and prison vacancies appear to worsen

Still under State of Emergency, W.Va. jail and prison vacancies appear to worsen
Published: May. 9, 2023 at 1:10 PM EDT
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HUNTINGTON, W.Va. (WVVA) - The light over the Capitol dome in Charleston remained on Tuesday as the Governor and lawmakers continued to work on a path forward toward addressing the State of Emergency affecting the state’s jails and prisons.

During interim meetings in Huntington this week, lawmakers were given an update regarding the severe staffing shortages, which appear to only be getting worse. The state’s regional jails and prisons have lost an additional 13 workers since December, with the total number of vacancies topping more than a thousand positions.

According to Chief of Staff Brad Douglas, at least eight facilities across the state are operating under a 40 percent vacancy rate while the rest of the facilities are averaging around 30 percent.

“Right here, (Before the Pandemic) it’s down to 538, which is the lowest anyone can remember for all three agencies combined. Then Covid hits. Covid hit us hard and that’s where we are today,” said Douglas, referencing a chart showing the timeline of the increase.

Currently, Douglas said the state’s prisons and jails still have roughly 300 members of the National Guard assisting in those facilities, including some members of the Division of Natural Resources (DNR).

While lawmakers await word of a special session, those in corrections, along with the support of local court officials, appear to be making significant progress in moving inmates out of jails and into prisons. Douglas referenced data showing the jail population declining by more than 300 inmates since December.

“A year and a half ago, during Covid, we weren’t moving people. It was a health hazard to do so and our jails were just full, full, full, and our prisons started to get some room. As you can see these numbers have crossed over. We’ve done an outstanding job moving people out of the jail system, where a lot of the vacancies are.”

Gov. Jim Justice previously indicated that he does not want to call for a special session until a consensus in place on the path forward. Lawmakers are currently considering a number of options in that regard to boost staff pay, including the possibility of locality pay for border areas that are losing correctional officers to neighboring states.

But in his presentation to lawmakers, Commissioner William Marshall said the end game must include more than just a bigger paycheck and a lot of that work is already underway.

“For our officers to operate every day, we’re addressing our maintenance issues. You’re right, the money won’t fit it all, but it will help. But we have to make the job better.”